Zdeněk Koubek

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"I confess that I am one of those passengers that Fate put in the wrong train. Should I have caused an alarm? I chose the second, quieter way: I applied for a rewrite of the ticket.”

— Zdeněk Koubek

The relationship between gender and sports has always been a complicated one, made even more so by modern gender roles. After the 1930s, it was increasingly common for athletes in international circles to be put through what was called “sex tests,” aimed at removing “gender frauds.” This was particularly true for women’s sports. These tests, lacking in scientific reasoning, tended to be invasive and humiliating. The goal was to ensure that no men were competing in the women’s Olympics, and so athletes were measured against white cishetero standards of femininity.

This quickly created a circular argument, as sports have historically been viewed as masculine and even cis women in sports are considered more “masculine” due to muscle mass and performance. This not only limited their abilities, it directly attacked black women who were already viewed as more masculine than white women. The more successful women were, the more people suspected them of being trans.

This suspicion is not only misinformed, it’s based in absolutely no science. It assumes that gender is innate and does not affect everyone differently. It forgets that AFAB people produce testosterone, some more than others. In fact, new rules have recently been put in place to limit women with higher levels of testosterone. These women are required to be on hormone replacement therapy or quit sports altogether. Unsurprisingly, most of the women forced to undergo this testing are successful black women. Their successes are scrutinized more thoroughly than white women’s, creating a standard deemed unscientific by the majority of medical professionals. With this inability to deal with the basic realities of cis athletes, it’s no surprise that the sporting community is completely baffled by transgender and intersex athletes.

One of the men who started and fortunately escaped from these discussions was Zdeněk Koubek. He was a transgender man who, after some years of participating in the Women’s Olympics and breaking several world records, withdrew from competitive sports and prioritized his own happiness.

Koubek was born December 8, 1913, in Paskov, Czechia (Now the Czech Republic). Growing up with eight siblings in a poor Catholic household, he was an active child and very fond of athletics. His family moved to Brno while Koubek was still a child, and there he became interested in track and field. With very little formal training, he managed to reach peak performance. He had a decent education and considered becoming a clerk, but chose to dedicate himself to sports. Due to his outstanding performance at 17, he moved to Prague and joined the Prague University team, also working part-time as an instructor and coach. In 1932, at the age of 19, he broke his first national record and shortly after set five more. He won two medals in the Women’s World Games in London in 1934 and set two world records.

It was at this point, due to his excellent performance and his gender non-conforming nature, that rumours started circulating. Newspapers pointed out his “masculine” behaviours. Following this, there was an anonymous request for Koubek to be examined by Olympic-sanctioned doctors to ensure he was not lying about his gender. As this happened, Koubek left competitive sports entirely.

Around the same time, writer Lída Merlínová wrote a biography about Zdeněk Koubek titled Zdenin světový rekord // Zdena’s world record. Merlínová was known for her writing on queer people, publishing the first Czech book about lesbians. In Zdenin světový rekord, Koubek is written as various degrees of gender non-conforming, androgynous, and masculine, and this book also added to the controversy of Zdenek’s sportsmanship.

After disappearing from sports for some time, Koubek resurfaced with The World Record Woman. Published in Prague Illustrated Newsletter, Koubek himself wrote the 20 part biographical series. In it, he spoke of how doctors had mistakenly assigned him female at birth, and how this had affected his life for over two decades.

He once again disappeared, this time journeying to the United States of America for six months. He held lectures and told his life story. Upon his return to Prague in 1936, he underwent gender affirmation surgery and changed his legal name.

He lived the rest of his life in Prague with his wife, later joined his brother’s rugby team, and never returned to the world of competitive sports. He passed away at the age of 73.

It is clear that their obsession with sex led to a great loss for the sports world. In a field that is supposed to be about reaching the height of human performance, it makes little sense to limit that. Instead of praising the difference between players, they shrink from it, unable to embrace the incredible abilities of bodies that exist outside of a narrow scope. A profession obsessed with tampering with the natural body with steroids, where even blood doping considered cheating, they hypocritically demand some athletes change their bodies based on a misunderstanding of basic biology.

With the case fo Zdeněk Koubek in mind, it becomes clear that these rules cost the world incredible athletes. It unfairly targets intersex women and black women, amongst others. Every aspect of athletics is based on the differences between bodies; it is their extraordinary abilities that set them apart from most people and make them great athletes. This ability to withstand these tests of strength, endurance, and maneuverability, all of which depend on biological variation, is a core component of competitive sports.

It is, of course, not about the quality of the athletes but how well they fit the normative standards.

Katrina Karkazis, a medical anthropologist and senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics said about the IAAF’s new rules surrounding testosterone testing:

“What makes sex testing so complicated is that there is no one marker in the body we can use to say, ‘This is a man,’ or ‘This is a woman,’ IAAF is trying to get around that complexity by singling out testosterone levels as the most important aspect of athletic advantage. But athletic advantage cannot be reduced to testosterone levels.”

Rebecca Jordan-Young, Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University, says:

“Hyperandrogenism is just another medical condition. There are many biological reasons some athletes are better than others. Several runners and cyclists have rare mitochondrial variations that give them extraordinary aerobic capacity. Many basketball players have acromegaly, a hormonal condition that results in exceptionally large hands and feet. Such biological differences don’t cause them to be barred from competition.”

Zdeněk Koubek should never have been forced into testing. He should never have been compelled to come out due to public speculation. He should never have been forced to leave competitive sports just to live a peaceful life.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Chmel Denčevová, I. (2018). Příběh prvorepublikové atletky Zdeny Koubkové, která se stala mužem. Její rekordy byly vymazány. Český Rozhlas. Retrieved from https://plus.rozhlas.cz/pribeh-prvorepublikove-atletky-zdeny-koubkove-ktera-se-stala-muzem-jeji-rekordy-7174153

Kovář, P. (2015). Pohnuté Osudy: Zdeňka Koubková, rekordmanka, co byla mužem. Retrieved from

https://www.lidovky.cz/lide/pohnute-osudy-zdenka-koubkova-rekordmanka-co-byla-muzem.A151111_163004_lide_ele

Heggie, V. (2010). Testing sex and gender in sports; reinventing, reimagining and reconstructing histories. University of Cambridge. Retrieved from

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160932710000670

Kovář, P. (2001). Zdeněk Koubek. Translide. Retrieved from http://www.translide.cz/zdenek-koubek

Georgin, L. (2013). “Exiles of Love”: Lída Merlínová and the World of the Czech Lesbian. University of Southampton. Retrieved from http://lgbtresearchcommunity.soton.ac.uk/project/exiles-of-love-lida-merlinova-and-the-world-of-the-czech-lesbian/

Testosterone rules for female athletes 'unscientific’. (2019). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47640359

Karkazis, K, & Jordan-Young, R. (2018). The treatment of Caster Semenya shows athletics' bias against women of colour. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/26/testosterone-ruling-women-athletes-caster-semanya-global-south

The Opposite of Fair Play: Part I. (2017). The Victory Press. Retrieved from https://victorypress.org/2017/10/18/the-opposite-of-fair-play-part-i/